International Aviation Community Loses SMS Giant

International Aviation Community Loses SMS Giant

Our colleague and friend, Dr. Don Arendt, passed away from pancreatic cancer on October 14. Though he underwent treatment for three years, his passion for his work gave him purpose and endurance. Dr. Don, as he was affectionately known, served for 20 years in the US Army as a warrant officer and followed that with a 24-year career at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), where he changed the course of aviation safety both at home and around the world. His name has come to be synonymous with safety management systems (SMS), safety culture, and organizational/human performance around the world. He was a civil servant, academic, author, and world-renowned speaker on SMS. 

During his tenure at the FAA, he introduced some major changes to how the agency performs safety oversight. So integral was his work that his colleagues called him “the father of SMS.” In the early days of FAA SMS planning and implementation, he not only guided various organizations in the FAA, but his vision and knowledge contributed to aligning SMS practices in other countries. Don served on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Safety Management Panel (SMP) and the Safety Management International Collaboration Group (SM ICG). His contributions to aviation safety were extraordinary. The FAA and the international community can thank him for his tireless effort that has forever changed the way air transportation organizations manage risk and regulators perform safety oversight. Few can say that they changed international aviation like Don did. 

Don enjoyed working with his teammates, both inside and outside the FAA. He had a special affinity for his international counterparts and they for him.  Don Arendt was an internationally recognized speaker and author on SMS and was invited by civil aviation authorities around the globe to participate in SMS discussions, including the SM ICG of which he was an original member. For the SM ICG, Don was a principal author of guidance on safety performance, safety culture, SMS oversight, organizational change, and risk management.

His speaking style was friendly, and he was brilliant at making his vast knowledge of complex topics interesting and understandable. He enjoyed intellectual exchanges with his colleagues, including one who remembers him listening to her intently as she wondered, “He is so smart, why does he want to hear from me?” Don was keenly interested in what others had to say. He had a brilliant mind and a passion for aviation safety that truly set him apart from other professionals in the field. He earned his colleagues’ respect with his profound knowledge and dedication to the promotion of aviation safety. 

Don’s SM ICG colleagues have described him as smart, dedicated, knowledgeable, passionate, an expert on safety, and generous with his time and his ideas. Many of us spent hours in Don’s “classroom” where he taught us to think differently and shaped our understanding of safety performance and safety culture. There was never enough time pick up all the gems he had to offer. Aviation leaders routinely turned to him for his unrivaled SMS expertise. Someone with such intellectual strength, experience, and breadth of knowledge could easily become self-important, but he did not. He was kind, humble, thoughtful, warm, and witty. He mentored many. Our SMS guru was also prone to self-deprecating humor when presenting or teaching, which only endeared him to us more. Don would joke about his own penmanship and say he had a “face made for radio," as he deftly explained the most complex concepts. He often quoted American journalist H.L. Mencken, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple...and wrong. Perhaps this is where we sort out the novices, the journeymen, and the masters." Don was a master. Yet, he had a way of making everyone feel welcome and valued, regardless of their background or level of expertise. During lunch breaks, he casually told stories that invariably had some profound deeper meaning. He never judged those of us who failed to grasp it. 

Above all his professional achievements, Don was a loving husband and father. He shared his passion for flying with his wife Karen, an aviation safety inspector with the FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam), and his daughter Samantha. At his memorial service, Karen described her remarkable husband, “Your footprint touched lightly upon this earth, but it is as if you left seismic-size craters in your wake, swallowing us up if we dwell on the thought of your being gone too long.” Don, you are wheels up one last time. We will miss you.

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